A week before Kristen Valnicek was set to take the LSAT, she quit studying, dropped the idea of law school and left college. She was finishing up her third year at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. Her parents, both in the medical industry, were supportive yet cautious.

“It was definitely weird calling my dad and telling him I was going to drop out of school and go play video games in his basement for awhile,” says Valnicek.

After a month of playing “Counter-Strike,” a first-person shooter game, she felt momentum building around her live-streaming channel on Twitch. She hasn’t looked back since.

These days, Valnicek, 25, is making enough money to hire two agents, a manager and a video editor. Her page, KittyPlays, is the second-most followed female channel on Twitch, a popular video streaming site that Amazon.com bought for $970 million dollars in 2014. (The Lily is part of The Washington Post, which is owned by Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos.)

Twitch started off as a platform to host live-gaming content in 2011, but continues to expand. It now has sections that include creative, cooking, social eating (the phenomenon of watching people eat), and IRL (vlogging). It’s gearing up to be as big–if not bigger–than Youtube.

Twitch says popular streamers can often make a full-time living from subscribers and donations if they hustle hard enough.

Source: Twitch and Alexa
Source: Twitch and Alexa

Jason Maestas, Twitch’s senior director of partnerships in North America, says, “Our goal is to make as many partners getting a living wage as possible. We want to make sure people can make a living doing what they love.”

Back in December 2016, the man behind summit1g, consistently one of the top three streamers on Twitch, accidentally flashed his donations tab to viewers. His screen showed that he’d made a cumulative total of $208,000. The reveal inspired an extensive Reddit thread.

Valnicek’s biggest donation in-one-go so far? $8,258.69. Women on Twitch work hard for their followers, subscriptions and overall earnings. The audience of the most-followed woman is just one-third of the most-followed male streamer on Twitch. There’s definitely a gap.

Women as the minority

It’s largely hypothesized that there are also fewer female streamers than men, but there aren’t numbers to support that. (Twitch doesn’t ask for this information during signup or account creation.)

How women are leveraging Twitch as a platform

  • Christine, who didn’t want to share her last name, is 31 and goes by cookingfornoobs. She was working as a tutor and nanny before she switched to doing Twitch full time. Like other career streamers, she streams 20 to 25 hours per week. An additional 20 to 25 hours are spent making a stream schedule, answering emails and planning out her content. As a streamer who focuses on having a family-friendly channel centered on cooking and vlogging, she says she’s now “making way more than [she] was before.”
  • Meghan Tobin, 20, goes by sinfullyriddling. She started streaming on October 16, 2015. Midway through her sophomore year at Seton Hall University, she dropped out of school to do Twitch. “I’m interested, career-wise, in doing social media and community management within the gaming industry, and the path that I’m on with my channel is leading me in that direction.”

Harassment on Twitch

Internet trolls are everywhere, and everyone is subject to them. But in November 2016, Indiana University published a paper examining whether chat messages addressed to Twitch streamers are gendered or not.

“…our analysis on both streamers and viewers shows that the conversation in Twitch is strongly gendered. First, the streamer’s gender is significantly associated with the types of messages that they receive — male streamers receive more game-related messages while female streamers receive more objectifying messages.”

Jennifer Thayer, a streamer with a relatively small following of 7,000 before her channel got shut down, says, “Every time I stream, I have 100 to 200 messages that are like, ‘When are you twerking?’”

A snapshot of amouranth’s chat on May 26, 2017. Amouranth is a cosplay streamer on Twitch.
A snapshot of amouranth’s chat on May 26, 2017. Amouranth is a cosplay streamer on Twitch.

It’s a frustrating experience for women. “A lot of times you are objectified,” says Tobin. “I’ll be wearing a full t-shirt, just trying to play some ‘Skyrim’ and kill some dragons, and somebody’s like, ‘Hey, take off your shirt.’ It’s degrading, it’s disgusting.”

But the streamer says she has ways of dealing with it. “I try to troll the trolls back. I used to have this John Cena cut-out that would sit next to me during a stream, and if someone came in and said something like, ‘You’re sexy,’ I would act like they were talking about the John Cena cut-out. I’d tell them, ‘You shouldn’t talk to John like that. He’s more than just a piece of meat. Have some respect.’”

Twitch has rules implemented ways to curb inappropriate chats. Streamers can choose moderators they trust and enable AutoMod, a tool that uses machine-learning to catch risky messages. There’s also a 24/7 Twitch moderation team that’s tries to catch violators in real-time.

“That’s something that’s great about Twitch,” says Tobin. “You can remove that stuff easily, but it still sucks to have it there at all.”

In the end, it’s all about community

Every woman interviewed for this article had a similar response when asked why they still keep streaming: They do it for the community.

“The community that I have is so supportive–even if somebody does insult me in a way that hurts me–I have such a strong support structure, that that makes me still love what I do and keep coming back to it,” says Christine.

Despite the pressure to be “a modern-day geisha girl,” Valcinek believes Twitch has an incredible, inclusive and loving community.

Valnicek’s newest venture, Team Kitty, is a group of 70 female broadcasters who host each other on channels, organize team charity events, and support one another.

“Our core value is to motivate, inspire and change the discussion about women in gaming. By working together, everyone can benefit. There’s no winner and there’s no loser,” she says.

Editor’s note: Amazon announced plans to buy Whole Foods in a $13.7 billion all-cash deal on June 16. That deal is the retail giant’s largest cash acquisition to date.

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